The Illusion Of A Teachers' Union

Throughout my life I have always been a supporter of unions, although I have never been the member of a union that really looked out for its rank-and-file. As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I was a member of the projectionists union, Local 150 of the IATSE, which had the distinction of turning down a cost of living increase. When I drove cab in New York, our union was headed by an electrician who had never driven a cab. And now as a teacher, I am a member of UTLA, which is headed by staff and administration that will never see the inside of a classroom again and whose president A.J. Duffy controls access to the UTLA newspaper, so that rank-and-file are unable to express their ideas.

After being subjected to a barrage of articles in the media trying to lay off failed public schools on teachers, NPR decided to have a debate on the following topic: Are Teachers' Unions to Blame for Failing Schools?

The problem I have with this topic stems from the false dichotomy that assumes teachers unions and public school districts are adversarial. It is my contention that if they were, most of the problems we now face in public education would not exist. Whether it is LAUSD and other big city public school districts or UTLA and other big city teachers union, both are run by people who got out of the classroom as quickly as possible -- one sometimes wonders if they ever got into teaching in the first place to teach or as a mere stepping stone to the high salaries and perks reserved for those who go into administration?

Don't get me wrong, as a history teacher who has taught at both the secondary and university levels, I am very much aware of what any worker's reality was like before unions. Furthermore, with all the scapegoating of teachers that is presently going on, I think it is entirely possible that we will see this reality again, if unions are not able to create the same two-way accountability that public school districts need to employ if they ever hope to succeed in turning around our schools. It is not an accident that both teachers unions and school districts are top-down administrative models with no obligation to listen to rank-and-file.

While Professor Charles Kerchner in his book "Learning Fom L.A.- Institutional Change in American Public Education" harkens back to some supposed halcyon era of good public education administration, I remember ex-P.E. teachers as LAUSD administrators and unions run by ex-teachers with no relevant education or training to effectively advocate in what should be the adversarial relationship between school districts and teachers' unions. When I say adversarial, I do not mean hostile or negative. Rather, I mean a search for truth exactly like the adversarial relationship that we run in our courts and legal system.

In Germany and other European countries, there is a mutual respect dictated by professional competency that does not exist in either LAUSD or UTLA, since their teachers' unions and school district administrators in Europe are not ex-teachers trying for upward mobility, but rather lawyers, business people, and others with the highly specialized training to advocate on behalf of their separate constituencies. In UTLA, I have heard presidents Day Higuchi, John Perez, and now A.J. Duffy always say the same thing, "Let's see what the District says about it." This always puts the union in a position of reacting to what the District puts forward without ever being involved in the debate and decision until the policy has already been implemented. Given the present dire straits in which LAUSD and UTLA presently find themselves, we can see that this is not good for them or the constituencies that depend on them.

Reminiscent of the Superman Comics of my youth, UTLA is like some sort of Bizarro LAUSD, where the reality for teachers is that they have two hostile bureaucracies that refuse to advocate for what teachers are in the best position to know as to what would be viable public education reform. Teachers, like myself, who stand up for these changes are not only assaulted by the District, but they find no real advocate from a union that they spend close to $60 a month to support. Let's see, that's about $2,280,000 a month in dues that UTLA takes in -- not including the rents from the 10 story building they own. How many grievances ever get pursued to the point of vindicating a teachers right and keep the District honest or at least in fear of UTLA? You should also be aware of the fact that even filing a grievance imposes an extra-legal gag order on you, the violation of which was in itself grounds for dismissal up until June 2009. Daring to talk about being harassed by LAUSD or not properly being represented by UTLA are still grounds for dropping your grievance -- how perfect.

Then there is always the contractual arbitration that UTLA is supposed to request and pay for on behalf of teachers who are harassed or unjustly charged by LAUSD after failure to resolve the conflict with the District during the protracted grievance process. The UTLA Committee that decides this usually refuses to put up the money for the arbitration without ever saying why. If you complain about UTLA's treatment, you are labeled a troublemaker and become the target of reprisals that only makes those of us who have experienced this situation smile in just how LAUSDesque they are. Several years ago, I applied for an out of classroom position that my principal gave to a teacher who had an expired emergency credential and was not tenured in total derogation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Paula Parr, a retired teacher moonlighting for UTLA, asserted for months that this would never stand and then rolled over when the LAUSD Staff Relations decided to reopen the position.

So you can see, the problem is not with unions, rather, it is in how they are run. For years, Sam Krasner negotiated on behalf of UTLA with LAUSD when it came to teachers' compensation and benefits -- he steadfastly refused to ask for a cost of living increase, although State Teachers' Retirement System (STRS) had long ago accepted this provision that is boilerplate for most union contracts. From 1976 until 2008 in balancing off all raises teachers received with the cost of living, LAUSD teachers lost about 11% in real wages when adjusted for inflation. Nice going Sam!

If you want to have a union that a school district takes seriously, poorly attended demonstrations in front of the Beaudry headquarters of LAUSD in early December 2009 and at the beginning of this month -- after school at 3pm -- give the exact opposite message to Superintendent Cortines that you want to achieve. It tells him that there is no rank-and-file support in UTLA and he can continue to decimate public education and the teachers that make it possible with no consequences. Consequences would require UTLA leadership to first work to define what teachers -- independent of LAUSD -- stand for as professionals in order to get support for what teachers want. While it might actually require a strike to achieve respect, so that LAUSD truly factors in teachers input in trying to address the comatose state of the District, the reality is that the strike is the basis of any union power. Furthermore, parents who could no longer drop their children off for the failed system of daycare that has supplanted education at LAUSD with great emotional cost to the teachers and school administrators, would finally bring the political pressure necessary to get Superintendent Cortines to try something different in his 50 year career as an educator.

So when are unions responsible for failed public education? Only to the extent that they have allowed themselves to function as the alter ego of failed public school districts.


03 2010

1 Comment

UTLA screwed the teachers of LAUSD and the students

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